ICOs? He held the first one. Stablecoins? He dreamed of them by accident. Vitalik Buterin tried to get him on board to help launch Ethereum, but he was too busy. He is J. R. Willett, one of the most fascinating men in the industry.
Back in 2012, Willett, now 41, felt he could improve Bitcoin by making it possible for anyone to create interoperable tokens backed by the protocol. He released a white paper that described the new model and invented a way to fund the project with a token sale. He procrastinated for the next 18 months, hoping someone else would take the bait. Eventually, he gave in and announced the Mastercoin initial coin offering, which went on to inspire Ethereum and every subsequent ICO.
“It felt like I was just putting into words what was obviously going to happen — people were already talking about it, and I thought, ‘Why hasn’t someone formalized this at least a little bit?’ I just got tired of waiting for someone else.”
In the early days, he was worried that cryptocurrency would bring about a dystopia where either the late adopters became penniless or a one-world government would form to regulate everyone’s transactions. He’s still worried, but things are going better than he’d feared.
In the sea of exceptional and charismatic people who rise to the top of the cryptocurrency world, Willett stands out. Not in his absolutist conviction to a set of principles, not in his journey from rags to riches, not in his “maniac drive“ to stick with a project, not in his outsized charitable pursuits, and not even in his artistic endeavors or grand visions for the future. No. Willett stands out because despite the incredible things he has set in motion, he remains a humble family man who never forgot what was most important.
The first ICO
When the world rang in the year 2012, Bitcoin was pretty much the only game in town. Bitcoin, blockchain and cryptocurrency were one and the same, save for the newly birthed Litecoin fork that was not yet three months old (LTC was created via mining, just like Bitcoin). It’s here that Willett arrived to stir the pot, publishing what he called “The Second Bitcoin Whitepaper.”
the mastercoin prospectus is fascinating. it was the 1st ICO, and as far as white papers go, it is really good. it even has risk disclosures! it describes a lot of ideas that would be implemented years later – DEXes, stablecoins, tokenization, onchain govhttps://t.co/noFt1PKzUD
— nic carter (@nic__carter) December 8, 2020
“We claim that the existing Bitcoin network can be used as a protocol layer, on top of which new currency layers with new rules can be built without changing the foundation,” he wrote. The idea was to make it possible to create new, functional tokens on top of Bitcoin in such a way that smart contracts could regulate their interactions. “Mastercoin supports creating property tokens to be used for titles, deeds, user- backed currencies and even shares in a company,” the white paper explained.
This sounds much like Ethereum today, complete with interoperable ERC-20 tokens and smart contracts. That is no coincidence, considering that Ethereum was partly inspired by Willett’s ideas.
“Vitalik came to us initially with his ideas, and we told him, ‘We’ve got some other things we want to do first.’ He didn’t want to wait, and it’s good for him that he didn’t. Ethereum was the result of that.”
Willett even brought up the idea of stablecoins, writing that “If you think Bitcoin has a reputation problem for money laundering now, just wait until you can store ‘USDCoins’ in the block chain!” This was a new idea — he invented the concept.
Mastercoin’s launch — and token sale — was announced in July 2013. It was the first-ever ICO, and coins could be purchased at an exchange rate of 100 MSC per 1 BTC. These first coins were received from the “Exodus Address,” which served as Mastercoin’s equivalent to the genesis block — while…